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The Year in Sex (or Pop Goes the Weasel) | The Nation

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Carnal Knowledge

The Year in Sex (or Pop Goes the Weasel)

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Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus perform at the 2013 Video Music Awards. (Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

There was no grand battle, but 2013 may enter the crimson register as the year the sexual revolution expired. I was going to say “died,” but death is too weighty. Death is real. What has happened to the sexual revolution, instead, fits more aptly in the category of market sensations, pop-up phantasms, beauty creams whose dubious chemistry degrades over time. Having long ago become a commodity, it simply exceeded its shelf life.

I suppose the same could have been said, and probably was, at many points since the Summer of Love, the gay uprising, Betty Dodson’s first masturbation clinic, Marvin Gaye’s release of Let’s Get It On or any other signal marker of the movement for sexual freedom that flowered in the late twentieth century. But 2013 felt somehow pivotal, mainly because from pop culture’s highest-profile sex-charged offerings, there was nothing to feel.

Really feel, in-your-soul feel—not just talk or argue about.

I’m referring to the year’s top-selling song, Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” and its biggest spectacle, the televised performance by Thicke and Miley Cyrus at the Video Music Awards, with subsequent catapult of Cyrus to the status of It Girl, Dirty Girl, Cover Girl, Queen of Pop, Sex Symbol, you name it.

Leave aside arguments over whether Thicke ripped off Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” (obviously he did) or whether Cyrus disturbed parental censors (that is pop culture’s signature). Leave aside arguments over cultural appropriation; those are as old as culture itself. As signs of the sexual zeitgeist—and popular music, the soundtrack of social life whether one switches on or not, has long been as good a gauge of the spirit of the time as anything in America—what both phenomena represent is the triumph of banality, of marketing over sentiment, of un-freedom packaged up and sold as freedom. They reduce men to dicks (in both senses of the word), women to pussies, give no quarter to the actual blurred lines of human sexuality and take cover in cheap irony.

That is not to underrate cock and pussy, by the way. I don’t buy sexual economics theory: the proposition that sex boils down to a bargain between body parts, and that fundamentally for women, sex must be rare, special and endured so long as the guy brings home a fat paycheck, while for men any hole will do. In other words, that people by nature put a price tag on everything, especially their genitalia, and then hunt for buyers, with men pricing themselves in the bargain basement and women secreting away in the diamond vault at Tiffany’s. If that theory were valid, then what we call female promiscuity would not be a feature of certain tribal cultures the world over, men would never want to marry, country songs wouldn’t exist, Girls would have no audience, and women would never, ever take up with losers. (Gays and trannies, sorry; sexual economics theory leaves you out altogether.)

That said, there are times in many a life when all a body wants is cock or pussy (maybe both—or buttocks, toes, pick your magic plaything); or when all you want is to feel as though you are nothing but ganglia and firing neurons, electric cock, electric pussy. There are times when all you want is to be taken, or, alternately, to be the maestro of another’s pleasure; times when you are selfish and times when another’s need is so great that you play the Sister of Mercy. Sex is not all a romantic symphony of mutual orgasm; dissonance is inevitable, and trade-offs, one-offs, the erotic meeting of strangers in the night.

But unless it’s downright ugly, sex is still the palace of feeling, which is why, like religious faith, it has long been a subject of music. A friend once said, “I want a man who makes me feel like music.” Generations of pop artists have effectively said, I want a song that makes them feel like sex. It never was coincidental or just a commercial ploy that music identified itself with “rockin’ and rollin’,” “getting your groove on,” being “in the funk.”

When Marvin Gaye made Let’s Get It On exactly forty years ago, he channeled primal sensations. Wah-wah-wah-wah, and the cymbals go k’shshsh; then the voice cries out. The tension and undulant joy of the sound are so deeply familiar, the first time you hear it you swear you’d known it all along. Its genius is not Gaye’s alone but the spirit of the time that accommodated and shaped his desire to explore and express what he felt as a man, one whose sexual life was vexed to say the least. “Liberation” became shorthand for that zeitgeist, and coming out of repression made saying it, showing it, flaunting it necessary—just to be visible, just to acknowledge. Being outrageous, doing something that had never been done before, was enough for art but not enough for freedom. Getting to freedom isn’t putting on a suit of clothes, or taking them off; it’s a finding-out. “We’re all sensitive people, so much to give,” sings Gaye. What’s striking about the title track and the album today is the tug between ecstasy and uncertainty. It’s the rhythm of the long voyage to feeling—and being—real, with no guarantees, as Gaye’s liner notes, so 1973, suggest:

I can’t see anything wrong with sex between consenting anybodies…. I contend that SEX IS SEX and LOVE IS LOVE. When combined, they work well together, if two people are of about the same mind. But, they are really two discrete needs and should be treated as such. Time and space will not permit me to expound further, especially in the area of the psyche. I don’t believe in overly moralistic philosophies. Have your sex, it can be very exciting, if you’re lucky. I hope the music that I present here makes you lucky.

Forty years on, it’s as if Robin Thicke said to himself, I want a song that makes them feel like rape. It’s not fair to compare Thicke with Gaye: the journeyman with the genius. But Thicke invited it by taking the hook from “Got to Give It Up,” diluting it, adding absolutely nothing original and using it to float lyrics that have more in common with a threat than a man hoping to get lucky. Gaye’s 1977 song is about a shy boy letting go of his fear, pushing himself onto the dance floor and giving in to the music. “Blurred Lines” is about a man telling a woman what she wants.

Subtract the hook and a nice falsetto, which also evokes Gaye, and all that’s left are the lyrics. Those are of the same musical genome as brutish songs out of the “dirty South” and elsewhere—smoother than Rick Ross’s 2013 boast, “Put molly all in her champagne/she ain’t even know it/I took her home and I enjoyed that/she ain’t even know it,” but in the same category of cold. After Thicke warbles, “Just let me liberate you” and repeatedly drones, “I know you want it,” he ushers T.I. to the mic to offer, among other sweet nothings, “I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two.” In the delivery and the music video, this all comes with a wink, an altogether clever stylization that put over a rather icky pastiche to become the year’s Number 1 song.

It’s just pop music! goes the typical rejoinder. Miley Cyrus said almost exactly that to a magazine in the flash-gab over her stripping down to a latex bikini, grinding against Thicke, twerking like an amateur stripper and brandishing a giant foam finger in joke-masturbatory gyrations to “Blurred Lines” and her own “We Can’t Stop” on the VMA stage.

The breezy dismissal ignores the “pop” in the equation. Cyrus’s video performances, most prominently the one with Thicke and another in which she swings nude on a wrecking ball and licks a sledgehammer, have about 500 million hits collectively on Youtube. A high-school boy recently wrote in the Buffalo News that she evokes the “excitement of being a teen.” So either she taps into some popular sensibility, or she is just a product to consume when there’s nothing better to do. Either Thicke reflects something about the way young(ish) men think about sex—basically, we’re all insensitive people, with nothing to give—or he just hit on a money formula. Either they are part of the feedback loop between commercial culture and social life at a particular historical moment, or else social life is captured by commerce, and they’re stepping on the toes of porn.

And either way, or if the answer is a bit of both, the news is bad.

With Cyrus, it is pointless to assess the content of her performances, because her public hypersexualization is so plainly a business decision. “Good girl gone bad” is one of the oldest tropes around. Merged with its opposite, “female sexual agency,” in an era when cable news shows and online magazines compete with Access Hollywood and porno to survive, the combination is gold. “Why not be talked about for two weeks instead of two seconds,” Cyrus has said. Her new album features some interesting mash-ups of hillbilly, hip hop and techno music on themes that aren’t particularly sexed up, but those haven’t got two seconds in the wasteland of chatter about her since summer. She’s smart, declared the editor of Cosmo, which has been driving the same straitened profile of sexual liberation to the bank since 1967.

The cliché term is that Cyrus “owns her sexuality,” the way the “Cosmo Girl” or any avidly sexual woman, no matter how worked by orders of the marketplace, owns hers. A telling turn of phrase, that: sexual freedom as property. It is usually assumed that while women have to work for this ownership, men, straight ones anyway, have a ticket to sexual freedom from birth. It is not true, of course. But then so much depends on how you define freedom. We’re all born into this world naked and touchy and have to learn how to share and hold onto sensitivity while the material world translates selfishness as success and teaches us to become unfeeling producers and consumers. For boys historically the holding on is harder because the lessons are more brutal. A culture that requires warriors creates warriors, whether for boardrooms, battlefields or cell blocs, and shapes sexuality to accommodate the main purpose. Then it calls this accommodation free choice.

This is hardly new, only accelerated as the twenty-first century keeps to its remorseless course. We kill by push-button. We handcuff toddlers. Emotion is inefficient, and too costly.

Before the hot wars started in 2001, Salon ran a ripping essay by Robin Shamburg (a k a Dominatrix Mistress Ruby) titled “Be a Slut! Be a Slut! Be a Slut!” The piece was less programmatic than the traffic-driving headline, and in those days before Slutwalks came to a neighborhood near you and “slut shaming” took its place in the ranks of irritating, overused, hence virtually meaningless phrases, Shamburg was precise about terms. In her taxonomy, there was the “private-dancer slut,” whose wild side is owned by her husband; the second-tier slut, or damaged “creature,” for whom sex is the only way to get attention; and finally the “true slut,” or “sexually mercenary woman.” This apex of liberation is specifically not a working girl but a “sex warrior”—a mercenary who “trades her pussy for whatever price she desires, and leaves the backroom morality brokers to sit on their hands in frustration. In doing so, she throws a real monkey wrench into the marketplace and says a big fat fuck-you to the evil forces that allow it to exist.”

It was a brisk, entertaining argument for a “free-thinking, egalitarian society.” But beneath its linguistic armor, it was naïve.

There is no liberation movement that has not been meat for the absorptive power of capitalism. The youth movements, the black movement, the gay movement, the women’s movement, every freedom cry that so-called class warriors have denigrated as dabbling in identity, has revealed the octopus-like nature of the system, its singular genius to grasp onto the new, the bold, the angry, and try to turn it into an ad, a product, a consumable pose or cover for its own crude business. That is the power and simultaneous pitfall of social liberation struggles under capitalism, and so the struggle is never finished.

Because sex is the greatest selling tool the world has known, sexual liberation as an idea and practice is particularly vulnerable to absorption. The sexual mercenary may want to throw a monkey wrench into the marketplace, but the marketplace just laughs.

Right now, as reflected by pop culture, where the tug of war between human creativity and dollar supremacy is greatest, that laugh is a big, fat guffaw. Unmediated by a critical mass of sex rebels and a critical culture of sexual sensitivity, it churns out new models of the old shtick of shock and daring, with the biggest rewards going to the least emotionally complex creations.

Now just in time for the New Year festivities, R. Kelly drops the ball on sex in a way that pretty much seals the case. A few months earlier he re-emerged on Lady Gaga’s “Do What U Want,” a song that makes vacant intercourse a metaphor for the celebrity’s relationship to the media. The metaphor is a rather desperate effort to give ordinary overheated, catchy club music a gloss of meaning (the media may screw her, but they can’t “own” this strong woman’s mind or life), as high school girls snap their thongs and fingers to “Do what you want with me/what you want with my body.”

Black Panties at least has no pretensions. In fact, if it weren’t for the years-long bows to Kelly as Marvin Gaye’s modern heir—“a genius,” according to Michael Eric Dyson, “who more than any other artist of his generation has tapped the vein of agitation between sex and spirit”—the new album would rank as a brilliant parody of contemporary music’s desensitized sexual essence. Nothing else so strips men and women, but especially women, down to life-support systems for their genitalia, a project that comes to full dada flower in “Marry the Pussy.” It’s hilarious until you realize you’re laughing alone.

The hip-feminist pop culture website Jezebel calls the album “a magnificent ode to pussy.” I suppose Kelly’s “I love pussy and pussy love me” sounds like poetry next to, say, BallOut’s “I don’t trust these hoes; I just fuck em, then I dump em.” And what Jezebel gushes over as “an actual proposal song to a woman’s sex organs” is a contrast winner over Thicke’s intimation of force and Rick Ross’s revel in it. Perhaps that’s why young women in Youtube comments are fanning themselves over Kelly’s robotic reverbs and moist variants of classic R&B’s quicksilver tones. People say all kinds of silly, dirty things in the private play of sex. Kelly just says them for them. Better a middle-aged egoist swinging dick and crooning “I’m gonna fuck your fucking brains out” than a guy putting a molly in your drink.

The energy of the old sexual revolution transformed our world, our minds. Gay liberationists and pro-sex feminists particularly made desire, visibility, autonomy and affection political acts when those were reviled or sequestered in the locked vault of certain straight men or certain sanctioned couples. The victories were huge, and the hot, sweet, buoyant sounds of that time came out of its optimism and novelty. Those days are gone. But the energy isn’t, because, as we know, energy is neither created nor destroyed, only changed. It flows in subterranean streams and in every living soul. Maybe we don’t know what freedom looks like; maybe we never will. We have an idea of what it is not: a narcotizing money game dressed in liberation’s clothing erecting new pens of control.

We need feeling. We need play. We need generous passion, not programming. A passionless people cannot make love, or revolution.

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